Voters in the Mountain View Whisman School District are being asked to pass a new bond measure that would tackle the short-term problems facing local schools today. It stops short, however, of tackling some of the more ominous troubles looming on the horizon.
The Measure T bond on the March 3 ballot would tax property owners to raise $259 million in funding for a whole host of practical problems that district officials say need to be fixed now. Some schools are short on space for incoming students, while almost all of the campuses have security flaws.
Past projects have piled up debt that's pulling cash out of the general fund, and the district's bid to lease a 144-unit apartment building for teacher and staff housing in Mountain View needs a source of funding in order to move forward.
The Measure T bond seeks to address all of these needs, and proponents say it's sorely needed in order to handle short-term growth and finish up many of the priorities that did not get touched during the last bond program -- the funds from which officially dried up in August last year.
What proponents readily admit, however, is that this bond does not try to take on the monumental task of preparing for all of the long-term student growth expected to come from Mountain View's ambitious housing growth plans. Between new zoning and housing projects already in the pipeline, Mountain View's population is slated to grow by 75% in the coming decades, ushering in the city's most rapid residential expansion since the 1960s.
With those new homes come thousands of children who will need access to public schools that are, for the most part, already packed. Estimates show local school districts will need as much as $1.22 billion to buy land and build facilities to support them all. School funding for growth of that magnitude is expected to come from developers and a mix of other financial strategies, but it won't be coming from Measure T.
The bond measure requires 55% of the vote to pass, and would cost district property owners $30 per $100,000 of assessed value each year.
Concrete plans, lessons learned
District officials sought to come up with a specific plan for how to spend Measure T money prior to the election. Unlike the 2012 bond, Measure G, trustees hammered out and approved a list of priority projects that allocates nearly all of the $259 million, well before the question goes before voters.
Doing so means avoiding delays, haggling and a lack of decisiveness that has colored past capital projects, said school board member Laura Blakely. And it means some of the wish list items that got put on the back burner under Measure G will actually make it to the finish line this time. Solar panels, for example, got nixed from the previous project list.
The largest pot of money, just over $102 million, will go toward a series of top-priority improvements at all of the school sites, ranging from efficiency upgrades -- solar panels, new windows, and new heating and ventilation systems -- to extra storage space for teachers. Blakely said teachers at Stevenson's new campus, for example, have practically no space to put supplies and classroom materials, some were given just a single shelf for storage.
Where Measure G brought in big tech upgrades to classrooms and delivered new campuses for Castro, Mistral and Vargas elementary schools, it fell short of replacing windows for classrooms that still have handblown glass, said Cleave Frink, a parent and campaign manager for the measure. Classrooms get uncomfortably hot in the summer and cold in the winter, he said, and are badly in need of an update.
The list of top priorities also includes new security measures at every school except Vargas, aimed at giving school staff a better handle on the perimeter of each campus and who has access during school hours. This will include better lighting and so-called "secondary perimeter" security that proponents say are needed at playgrounds, parking lots and park spaces adjacent to school facilities.
Another $34.8 million of the bond funds are earmarked for what the district calls "short-term" growth, essentially preparing for the near-term housing spurt in Mountain View and setting aside the mammoth-sized task of preparing for future residential growth in the North Bayshore and East Whisman areas of the city.
Reports from November show that the school district needs to be ready to house an additional 889 students in the coming years, a 17% jump over today's enrollment, but what that will look like on a practical level depends on the school. At Theuerkauf Elementary there is plenty of room to grow, and an expected spike in enrollment from 332 students today to 552 won't require any additional classroom space.
The same can't be said for Landels Elementary School, which is expected to grow by a smaller amount -- from 446 students to 566 -- taking it way past full capacity in the process. The remedy, according to district officials, is a new two-story building for classrooms and an administrative office.
Then there's Huff Elementary School, which isn't expected to grow at all and yet will still receive an additional portable classroom under the board's adopted plan for Measure T. Original projections showed that the district's new attendance boundaries and crackdown on intradistrict transfers would reduce Huff's enrollment to 518, but the school's head count hasn't dropped and is expected to remain closer to 550 students.
Measure G construction assumed Huff's capacity would be 450 students, and portable classrooms were placed on the site under the assumption they would eventually no longer be needed.
The growth forecast over the next 20 years is far more daunting, with district projections showing an influx of 2,500 additional students. Blakely said Measure T, while needed, has no chance of addressing that kind of growth, which would require land acquisition in areas where the cost per acre exceeds $10 million. Measure T funds could very well be swallowed up trying to build just one school in North Bayshore.
"We're going to have to look for other sources of money," Blakely said.
Funding needed for teacher housing
Perhaps the most ambitious project is Mountain View Whisman School District's foray into the housing business. The district struck a deal in 2018 with the city of Mountain View and the developer Fortbay to bring 144 affordable units to Mountain View that would be almost entirely devoted to teacher and staff housing.
As it stands, there's no source of funding to actually deliver on the plan. But school officials say that could change if Measure T passes next month.
The idea of teacher housing has been floating around since 2016, with district officials worried with the high cost of living in the Bay Area. Surveys showed many teachers and faculty were struggling to pay the bills and weathered long commutes to get to work, contributing to stress and an annual exodus of teachers quitting the district.
Under a deal with Fortbay approved by trustees in March last year, Mountain View Whisman will contribute $56 million to help design and build a 716-unit apartment complex at 777 W. Middlefield Road. In return, the district gets full control of an entire 144-unit apartment building that it can then lease out as workforce housing.
Doing so piggybacks on a project that was already in the development pipeline and satisfies Fortbay's requirement for affordable housing, which the developer claims would have otherwise rendered the project financially infeasible. Although the apartments are almost entirely devoted to district employees, the agreement leaves open the option for the city to make a one-time payment toward construction of the 144-unit building in exchange for the "first right of refusal" on 20 of those units for city employees.
If constructed, it would be one of the largest teacher housing projects in the Bay Area.
The terms of the agreement require the district to pay $1.8 million each year for a ground lease, which will last for 55 years and is expected to be offset by below-market-rate rent charged by the district. But the district does not have a clear way to pay for the upfront construction costs absent the passage of Measure T. Of the bond funds, $60 million have been earmarked for staff housing.
Paying off debts
Some called it a rapidly changing scope of work while others called it steep cost overruns, but Mountain View Whisman's Measure G bond fund was doomed to be depleted long before all of the big-ticket projects could be completed.
Drawing outside funds into the capital budget, district officials were able to stretch the original $198 million bond into a much larger building program in excess of $260 million, which staved off contingency plans that would've skimped on new construction at Stevenson and Theuerkauf elementary schools. It was also crucial in the construction of Vargas Elementary, which opened in August and united disparate neighborhoods in the Whisman and Slater areas of the cities.
But it came at a price: The district sought what's called a certificate of participation (COP) in order to finance the new construction, borrowing $40 million against future revenue earned by leasing former school sites to private organizations. As it stands today, the district is siphoning off $2.6 million normally bound for the general fund to pay off those debts.
Under the district's spending plan, $40 million of Measure T funds will be reserved for paying off that outstanding debt. Proponents of the bond describe it as a way to free up $2.6 million in cash that can go to classrooms, but also as a potential pathway to sever lease agreements and reclaim former school sites for future use.
The old Slater and Whisman elementary school campuses owned by the district are currently leased out to Google for its day care center, the German International School of Silicon Valley and Yew Chung International School. With so much enrollment growth on the horizon, Blakely said those campuses could present a way to handle a deluge of new students, but right now the district is wholly dependent on that lease money to pay off old debts.
Measure T's campaign boasts a long list of endorsements from politicians ranging from U.S. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo to all current Mountain View City Council members. The Santa Clara County Democratic Party endorsed the measure -- along with every other local school bond and parcel tax measure on the March ballot -- as did the Los Altos-Mountain View League of Women Voters. As of Feb. 4, five of the district's PTAs have signed on with endorsements: Huff, Landels and Mistral elementaries and both Graham and Crittenden middle schools.
No organized local campaign against Measure T has materialized to date, but the regional Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association penned the argument against the measure. The organization's president, Mark Hinkle, wrote that district residents will likely be saddled with paying more than $500 million in total repayments when interest is factored into the cost of Measure T.
Hinkle criticized the district's spending plan for including projects that were supposed to be addressed with Measure G funds -- even though the district spent far more than the $198 million authorized under the bond.
"Proponents properly have the burden of explaining to voters how the last $262 million was spent and why another $259 million is needed," Hinkle wrote in the argument.
Another argument laid out by Hinkle and other critics of Measure T is that it amounts to a blank check: Despite fairly detailed plans for how to spend the money, the ballot language and the board's resolution placing Measure T on the ballot is ambiguous and could be used to finance practically any school-related construction project.
Doing so has become common practice, Blakely said in defending the decision. She said she is "confident" that the district will spend the money as it promised to do, but that it would be a mistake to bake it into the ballot language. Things change, she said, and the district would risk handicapping itself by passing an inflexible bond.
"It's just really to preserve flexibility for the 'what-ifs,' but I don't think there's any intent to deviate from these priorities," Blakely said.